Risk of Solitary Confinement Doubles for Juveniles Jailed in Adult Prisons

Prison tower
Many people with mental health problems end up in solitary confinement in prison when their problems, left untreated, result in them acting out.

From North Carolina Health News:

Juveniles incarcerated in adult prisons face a host of adverse health impacts. New research presented at the American Public Health Association conference shows they are also more than two times as likely to be placed in solitary confinement.

North Carolina and New York are the only two states in the country that try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in their criminal justice systems.

The negative health impacts of adolescents incarcerated in adult prisons are well documented. Adolescents face significantly higher risks of sexual victimization, physical assault and recidivism when they are incarcerated with adults.

And new research from the New York City Department of Health’s Bureau of Correctional Health Services shows that adolescents are more than two times as likely as adults to be sent to solitary confinement. Staff from the department presented their research findings at the American Public Health Association Conference in New Orleans in November.

Findings from the study conducted on Rikers Island show that race also plays a role in who gets sent to the “hole,” a term commonly used by inmates to describe solitary confinement. The study shows black juveniles are most frequently sent to solitary confinement. Nearly 7 percent of black juveniles get placed in isolation compared to 4.8 and 1.8 percent of Hispanic and white adolescents, respectively.

The controversial use of solitary confinement in North Carolina has been questionedwith the recent death of Michael Anthony Kerr.

Kerr was an inmate at Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville, where he died of dehydration in an isolated cell on March 12. His death led to the firing of seven people, two resignations, an internal prison report and an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation.

Homer Venters, assistant commissioner of NYC’s Bureau of Correctional Health Services, said that many people who are sent to prison or jail have a host of mental illnesses, but that the criminal justice system confers new health risks on inmates.

“Jails and prisons harm [inmates’] health,” he said.

In solitary confinement, inmates are commonly allowed to have one hour of out-of-cell time. The remaining 23 hours are spent alone and isolated in a small windowless cell.

The psychological impacts of solitary confinement have been researched for decades; studies show that it can lead to a number of problematic behaviors such as loss of control, rage and aggression.

“Self-harm and other extreme behavior are highly associated with the practice of solitary confinement,” Venters said.

Seven percent of inmates go to solitary confinement, but they represent more than half of all self-harm acts and 47 percent of high lethality self-harm, according to Venters.

Findings from the study show that white inmates are more likely to get a serious mental illness diagnosis than black or Hispanic inmates. That diagnosis has implications for the kind of services people can access.

“There is a lot of stigma with that label, but that designation gets people a lot of social services,” Venters said.

Efforts to divert North Carolina’s youth from the adult criminal justice system were successful this past summer after a decade of failed attempts. Legislation commonly referred to as “Raise the Age” passed in the N.C. House during last year’s short legislative session. It allowed 16- and17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors to be tried as juveniles rather than adults, but the bill died when the N.C. Senate declined to take up the bill.

Advocates say they’ll try again this year to get it through the legislature.

This story was originally published by North Carolina Health News.

OP-ED: The Solitary Confinement of Youth

Tamar Birckhead new head shotIsmael Nazario was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., by his mom, a single parent who always emphasized the importance of education and doing well in school. When Ismael was 13, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. As she underwent chemotherapy and radiation, Ismael began to struggle.

By 10th grade, he had lost interest in school and instead spent his time smoking marijuana and talking to girls. At 15, he got into a scuffle with another student and was arrested, placed in handcuffs and taken to the police station. A year later, at age 16, he was charged with assault and sent to Rikers Island jail to await resolution of his case.

There he was attacked by four inmates who demanded his phone privileges and commissary food and required him to ask their permission before sitting in a chair or using the bathroom. Ismael quickly learned that in order to survive, he needed to be ready to fight.

Although Ismael’s assault charge was ultimately dismissed, the two months that he spent in jail changed the way in which he saw himself and his place in the world. The following year, at age 17, he was once again held at Rikers — this time for two alleged robberies — as he could not afford to post bail. After getting into a fight with a group of other inmates, which guards characterized as inciting a riot, Ismail was placed in solitary confinement.

While there, he hallucinated, paced, talked to himself, cried and screamed. The New York City Department of Corrections disciplinary rules allow for inmates to be sentenced to punitive solitary confinement for such seemingly minor infractions as horseplay, noisy behavior or annoying a staff member.

Before Ismael left Rikers two years later, he had spent more than 300 days in “the box,” a six-by-eight-foot cell containing a bunk, sink, toilet, and metal door with no natural light and a small mesh window through which food is delivered. His longest stretch in solitary lasted four months. All of his time incarcerated at Rikers was in pretrial detention — he had not yet been convicted of a crime.

Ismael Nazario’s experience is representative of the many thousands of young people who are held in isolation on any given day across the globe. I’ve conducted new research that reveals that approximately 30 percent of the world’s countries either employ the practice or legally condone its use.

Whether the young person is held in a juvenile or immigrant detention center, adult jail or prison, the common denominator for all these settings is that the individual is under the age of 18, removed from the general population of the facility, and kept alone in a room or a cell for 23 hours each day, with one hour of exercise in what is often a small cage.

Frequently the triggering event for imposing isolation is a relatively minor misbehavior that violates the facility’s rules. Large percentages of teenagers in solitary have diagnosed mental health problems. Solitary may also be imposed during pretrial detention to coerce suspects into confessing or pleading guilty.

Government entities have long justified the practice of solitary confinement on only a few grounds. U.S. Bureau of Prisons regulations stipulate that solitary confinement is warranted to ensure the safety and security of the facility or as a sanction for committing a prohibited act. Corrections officers maintain that solitary is the best way to prevent violence among inmates, many of whom are mentally ill, and is necessary for prison guard safety. Studies have found that isolation is one of the key correlates for reports of illness, self-mutilation and jail suicides.

When the inmate is alone and living in disciplinary or segregated housing, violence toward staff has also been found to be significantly more likely. It has even been suggested that isolation and intensified control measures in prison settings generate a culture or ecology of cruelty, causing long-term psychological harm to the correctional officers who work in these units. Likewise, studies have found that subjecting prisoners to solitary confinement makes it more difficult for them to assimilate back into their communities, increasing the risk of recidivism.

There is no easy answer to the question of why the practice of isolating young inmates continues to persist despite extensive evidence of its harm. Since the 1980s, a major factor has been the tough on crime penal philosophy perpetuated by legislators and a lack of meaningful judicial review of the conditions of isolation. From the perspective of those within the prison industrial complex, it is easier to keep adolescent super-predators locked alone in cells than to implement the reforms necessary to create a healthy correctional environment.

This attitude is particularly pronounced when the young people are black or brown, have no one to advocate for them, and have been labeled bad kids or throwaway kids by the juvenile and criminal justice systems. These factors are further compounded by the high percentages of imprisoned youth who are mentally ill, have drug or alcohol addictions, or both, presenting even greater challenges to facilities with few resources.

Ismael Nazario, who spent more than 300 days in “the box” in Rikers Island jail, is now in his mid-20s. His mother survived cancer, and she and her son are still close. Ismael eventually pled guilty to one of the robbery charges and the other was reduced to a misdemeanor, enabling him to avoid a felony conviction. Since his release he has found meaningful employment — for three years he worked as a case manager with at-risk adolescents in Brooklyn and more recently with adults and teenagers who have been released from Rikers Island. Ismail does not talk with his clients about his own time in the box, but he has seen what the experience has done to other boys.

Most young people who are held in isolation are not as fortunate as Ismail. Yet, the question of whether to continue to isolate youth cannot be characterized as merely another intractable issue about which reasonable minds may differ. The justifications that allow governments to keep teenagers alone in cells for hours, days and weeks at a time are not the result of rational thinking based on evidence. Instead, the solitary confinement of youth is one more byproduct of the systemic problems that continue to plague modern society: the vanishing social safety-net, generational poverty, implicit bias, the school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration and the criminalization of mental illness. Ending the practice of isolating children is an important step toward confronting these broader issues.

Tamar. R. Birckhead is associate professor of law and the director of clinical programs at the University of North Carolina School of Law. Her research on solitary confinement will be published in 2015 in the Wake Forest Law Review.

Revised JDAI Standards Call for End to Unnecessary Solitary Confinement


Amid growing outcry over solitary confinement of juveniles, the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation is calling for an end to the practice except as a short-term response to behavior that threatens a youth or others.

Newly revised juvenile detention facility standards — to be released this week in Philadelphia at an annual conference of Casey’s groundbreaking Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) — have been in the making for 1 ½ years.

The three-day JDAI conference is expected to draw some 800 people involved in juvenile justice. JDAI, the nation’s most widely replicated juvenile reform effort, now operates in more than 250 sites in 39 states and the District of Columbia.

Highlights of the conference  will include speeches by award-winning author Nell Bernstein, whose new book, “Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison,” calls for abolishing state-run juvenile facilities, and Bart Lubow, who is retiring after 22 years as director of Casey’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group.

The conference features more than 40 workshops focusing on topics such as conditions of confinement, alternatives to detention, indigent defense, disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system, adolescent brain development, the school-to-prison pipeline, and family-focused juvenile justice policies.

Speaking of solitary confinement, Mark Soler, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Children’s Law and Policy (CCLP), told JJIE: “It’s not helpful to kids. It more often exacerbates problems that kids have. Kids with mental health problems often get worse by being put in solitary, and in virtually all situations, it’s unnecessary.”

Staff from CCLP and the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center (YLC) drafted the detention standards. About two dozen experts then reviewed the draft standards, and the CCLP and YLC incorporated some of the experts’ comments into the final version.

“The revised JDAI Detention Facility Standards prohibit the use of room confinement for discipline, punishment, administrative convenience, retaliation, staffing shortages, or reasons other than as a temporary response to behavior that threatens immediate harm to a youth or others,” a JDAI summary of strategies to eliminate unnecessary use of room confinement states.

Thousands of juveniles endure solitary confinement each year in the United States, often in tiny cells for up to 23 hours a day with little human contact, even though a growing number of experts say the practice causes irreparable psychological and developmental harm to youths.

JDAI’s call to sharply restrict solitary at its sites drew praise from vocal opponents of the practice.

“I think this change in the JDAI standards is hugely significant,” Amy Fetig, senior staff counsel with the ACLU's National Prison Project, said in an e-mail to JJIE.

“There is no question that this change will have national impact. Combined with … the growing national conversation about the inhumanity of subjecting our children to solitary confinement, I believe that the change to the JDAI standards marks the beginnings of a sea change in juvenile justice nationally.”

And Jessica Feierman, supervising attorney with the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, said in an e-mail to JJIE: “We are incredibly encouraged by the ban on disciplinary isolation in

JDAI's detention standards. The standards signal a growing recognition that holding children in isolation is both inhumane and unnecessary.”

The revised detention standards also call on JDAI sites to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). This marks the first year that states and territories could lose federal grant money if they do not indicate their intention to comply with the law.

Also included in the revised standards are federal requirements to protect the rights of youths with disabilities and to accommodate those with limited English skills.

Lubow, who is to give a state-of-the-JDAI speech, told JJIE this year’s conference will focus heavily on the dispositional, or “deep end” of the juvenile justice system and on conditions of confinement.

“Our plan is to build upon the positive experiences that [JDAI] sites have had with detention reform and to more intentionally take on other components of the system, and the deep end is the  target — that is, the kids who are committed and placed out of home,” Lubow said.

“If there’s going to be significant reinvestment in  juvenile justice into early intervention and better prevention efforts, funds for that kind of stuff are going to come from one place only, and that’s going to be from reducing our reliance on very expensive juvenile confinement facilities.”

Increasingly, Lubow pointed out, mass incarceration of juveniles has come under fire.

“I think that the big message is that we are at a unique moment in juvenile justice history where there has emerged a bipartisan critique of this era of mass incarceration and there have emerged a large number of places that have rejected that model and are working hard, albeit slowly, to change things,” Lubow said.

“I think the basic message is going to be: Look at what we have achieved compared to where we were at 20 years ago, but don’t be complacent because all the great reductions in the use of confinement that are characteristic of JDAI sites do yet not mean that we have a system yet that’s in any way rehabilitative or right-sized or is not doing harm.”

Financial supporters of The JJIE may be quoted or mentioned in our stories. They may also be the subjects of our stories.

Holder Speaks Out Against Solitary Confinement of Mentally Ill Youths

In a video, Attorney General Holder spoke out against excessive use of isolation and solitary confinement for young people with disabilities at juvenile detention centers.
In a video, Attorney General Holder spoke out against excessive use of isolation and solitary confinement for young people with disabilities at juvenile detention centers.

U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. condemned “excessive” use of solitary confinement of children with mental illness in juvenile facilities.

“At a minimum, we must work to curb the overreliance on seclusion of youth with disabilities,” including mental illness, Holder said in a video posted on the Justice Department website.

“This practice is particularly detrimental to young people with disabilities, who are at increased risk under these circumstances of negative effects, including self-harm and even suicide,” the attorney general said. “In fact, one national study found that half of the victims of suicides in juvenile facilities were in isolation at the time they took their own lives, and 62 percent of victims had a history of solitary confinement.”

lifeintheboxAs JJIE reported in March, thousands of juveniles endure solitary confinement each year in the United States, often in tiny cells for 22 to 24 hours a day with little human contact, even though a growing number of experts say the practice causes irreparable psychological and developmental harm to youths.

Holder noted that in some cases, children were held in small rooms with windows barely the width of their hands.

“This is, to say the least, excessive, and these episodes are all too common,” he said.

“Across the country,” Holder said, “far too many juvenile detention centers see isolation and solitary confinement as an appropriate way to handle challenging youth, in particular, youth with disabilities. But solitary confinement can be dangerous and a serious impediment to the ability of juveniles to succeed once released.”

He pointed to a study released last year by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) showing 47 percent of juvenile detention centers reported locking youth up in some form of isolation for more than four hours at a time.

Holder said it may sometimes be necessary to separate a youth from others to protect staff, other inmates or the juvenile from harm.

“However,” he added, “this action should be taken only in a limited way where there is a valid reason to do so – and for a limited amount of time.”

Holder also said juveniles placed in isolation must be closely monitored and detention facilities must make “every attempt” to continue educational and mental health programming while a youth is in isolation.

“We must ensure in all circumstances, and particularly when it comes to our young people, that incarceration is used to rehabilitate and not merely to warehouse and to forget,” Holder said.

Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel with the ACLU's National Prison Project, praised Holder’s statement.

[module type="aside" align="right"]

Learn more about juvenile justice issues and reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubLearn more about juvenile justice issues and reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.


“The ACLU commends Attorney General Holder for speaking out against the harmful practice of placing vulnerable youth in solitary confinement,” Fettig said in an e-mail to JJIE.  “This action clearly signals that such practices should not be tolerated in our society and that jurisdictions across the country must stop placing children in solitary confinement.

“But,” Fettig added, “the attorney general needs to go further. He must speak out against using the practice on any child – not just children with disabilities.  Thousands of kids in this country are subject to solitary confinement every year, and this practice harms each and every one of them.”

The Justice Department has taken action in recent months in response to what it said was use of solitary confinement of youths with disabilities.

In March, the department said it asked a federal court to prevent the Ohio Department of Youth Services from unlawfully placing boys with mental health disorders in solitary confinement at the state’s juvenile detention facilities. The department alleged in a motion that DYS violated the constitutional rights of boys placed in solitary at all four of the state’s juvenile detention facilities.

In February, the department’s Civil Rights Division filed a statement of interest in response to what it called excessive reliance on solitary confinement of disabled youths in Contra Costa County, Calif. The statement alleged youths were held in solitary confinement up to 22 hours a day, often with no human interaction whatsoever.

And a task force commissioned by Holder, the National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, concluded in its final report in December 2012: “Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.” The task force recommended the practice be forbidden. Robert L. Listenbee Jr., now the OJJDP  administrator, co-chaired the task force.

In his role as OJJDP administrator, Listenbee stated in a July 5, 2013, letter to an American Civil Liberties Union official that “isolation of children is dangerous and inconsistent with best practices and that excessive isolation can constitute cruel and unusual punishment,” which is banned under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.


Q&A: Solitary Confinement and Teens Shouldn’t Mix

CIR_bug_square_1000Dr. Bruce Perry is a child psychiatrist and senior fellow at the ChildTrauma Academy in Houston and adjunct professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. His neuroscientific research has focused largely on the effects of trauma on brain development. He has consulted on high-profile cases involving children in crisis, including the Columbine High School massacre, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Waco, Texas, siege, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Here, Perry explains to The Center for Investigative Reporting how it feels to be a teenager locked in solitary confinement, and the effects of isolation on the developing brain. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

The Center for Investigative Reporting: How do kids experience isolation?

Dr. Bruce Perry: Almost all of them start to retreat into their inner world because there’s nowhere else to get stimulation. Some of these kids, without any external relational anchors, start to go crazy. They’ll have ruminations about what they’re going to do to that person who got them in trouble, and that can morph into murderous fantasies. The brain is so used to a variety of sensory input that in the absence of that, over time, they start to hallucinate and get paranoid. You can literally make people crazy by keeping them in solitary.

CIR: We hear a lot of stories about prolonged isolation, but what are the effects of just a few days of solitary confinement on kids?

Dr. Perry: They end up getting these very intense doses of dissociative experience, and they get it in an unpredictable way. They’ll get three days in isolation. Then they’ll come back on the unit and get two days in isolation. They’ll come back out and then get one day. They end up with a pattern of activating this dissociative coping mechanism. The result is that when they’re confronted with a stressor later on, they will have this extreme disengagement where they’ll be kind of robotic, overly compliant, but they’re not really present. I’ve seen that a lot with these kids. They’ll come out, and they’re little zombies. The interpretation by the staff is that they’ve been pacified. “We’ve broken him.” But basically what you’ve done is you’ve traumatized this person in a way that if this kid was in somebody’s home, you would charge that person with child abuse.

CIR: You’ve worked with young people inside solitary confinement units. What are those places like?

Dr. Perry: They tend to be stereotypical institutional settings with cinderblock walls and tile floors and colors that are just drab, almost depressing in their nature. A lot of echoing sounds and reverberation. These are sensory experiences that are atypical. The natural world has a certain ebb and flow, it has a rhythm to it, a smoothness to the sounds that we hear. You go into institutional settings and the architecture creates a sensory environment that is unfamiliar and unsettling. Some places don’t have natural light. Some keep the lights on all the time, so your biorhythms get all messed up. Some places will be eerily silent, particularly if you’re in isolation, and some places will be persistently noisy, so any effort to sleep or regulate yourself is interfered with. The environment is physiologically disrespectful.

CIR: Kids in isolation must lose all sense of control. What’s the impact of that?

Dr. Perry: One of things that helps us regulate our stress response is a sense of control. With solitary, when you start to take away any option, any choice, you’re literally taking somebody with a dysregulated stress response system, like most of these individuals in jail, and you’re making it worse. The more you try to take control, the more you are inhibiting the ability of these individuals to develop self-control, which is what we want them to do.

CIR: How does it affect a kid’s sense of self-worth to be locked away from everyone else?

Dr. Perry: Most of these kids feel marginalized to start with. They feel like they’re bad, they did something wrong, they don’t fit in. And isolation is essentially the ultimate marginalization. You’re so marginalized you don’t even fit in with the misfits, and we are going to exclude you from the group in an extreme way. In some ways it’s the ultimate message that we don’t care for you. We are neurobiologically interdependent creatures. All of our sensory apparatus is bias toward forming and maintaining relationships with human beings. When you are not part of the group, it’s a fundamental biological rejection.

CIR: We interviewed several teenagers about their experience in solitary confinement and asked them what they think about while they’re in there. Almost without exception, they went straight to grief and loss, loved ones who had died, often prematurely and in horrible ways. Why do you think that is?

Dr. Perry: Isolation, the experience of being separated from human beings, for them, is reminiscent of the separation that happened earlier from people who were meaningful to them. The feeling is evocative of the last time they felt so disconnected or felt the loss of human interactions. The amount of loss and exposure to violence and trauma that most of these kids have is pretty astounding. So it triggers relational-based memories, and right at the top of those would be memories around loss and grief.

CIR: A common argument from corrections professionals is that they have no choice but to isolate kids who are unruly or violent. How should we be designing our juvenile justice facilities so that they not only promote healthy development, but also provide safety without using solitary?

Dr. Perry: There’s an approach called collaborative problem-solving, which has shown tremendous effectiveness with dysregulated, explosive individuals. It’s not like we’re going to ignore the issue, but we’re going to acknowledge it and talk about a solution that we come up with together. And when you do that, it literally defuses things in a very powerful way. It’s ironic that in many of these models of intervention — mental health, education, juvenile justice — rather than taking advantage of the major biological unit of leverage we have for healthy development, which is the relationship, we actually make it more relationally impoverished.


This Q&A was produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting, an award-winning, nonprofit newsroom based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at




Growing Number of States Moving Away from Juvenile Solitary Confinement

Youths work on a math and science activity board at the Metro Youth Service Center, a juvenile detention facility in Boston. The Massachusetts Department of Youth Services banned punitive solitary confinement in 2009. To reduce the use of solitary confinement, experts say, it’s critical to keep youngsters occupied in engaging programs.
Youths work on a math and science activity board at the Metro Youth Service Center, a juvenile detention facility in Boston. The Massachusetts Department of Youth Services banned punitive solitary confinement in 2009. To reduce the use of solitary confinement, experts say, it’s critical to keep youngsters occupied in engaging programs.

Behold the landscape of juvenile solitary confinement, and how quickly it can change.

When attorney Lydia Milnes began investigating the West Virginia Industrial Home for Youth in 2012 as preparation to file a lawsuit, she says, she encountered a boy who had been held in solitary confinement for six straight months as a 15-year-old.

The boy was held alone in a cell with a toilet, a bed and a desk-type structure for 23 hours a day and allowed out to take a shower and, if he had time, to sit in another cell from which he could watch a TV that was outside that cell.

During his stay in solitary at the juvenile detention center in Salem, W.Va., the boy never breathed fresh air because he wasn’t allowed outdoors, and the few hours’ education he received each week amounted to a teacher giving him workbooks and answering questions if he had any.

lifeintheboxMilnes – an attorney with Mountain State Justice, a nonprofit law office serving low-income West Virginians that filed the lawsuit on behalf of two youths who had been held at IHY – said the boy told her he had been held in the “segregation unit” of the facility for disciplinary reasons about nine times. He also told her he had been placed in solitary as part of “administrative segregation” because staff deemed him too much trouble to deal with.

Today, as a result of the lawsuit, IHS is no longer a juvenile detention center – it’s been shifted to adult corrections – and the West Virginia Division of Juvenile Services rarely relies on solitary confinement in its juvenile facilities. DJS resorts to punitive isolation only after an administrative hearing before an independent hearing officer with due process rights for the resident such as the right to present testimony, bring witnesses, challenge allegations and appeal the hearing officer’s decision.

That stands in sharp contrast to the pre-lawsuit days when correctional officers often were friends with hearing officers, who routinely rubber-stamped the correctional officers’ imposition of as many as 30 days of punitive solitary confinement, and youths often received longer administrative segregation.

The shift away from solitary and toward a more rehabilitation-oriented juvenile justice system in West Virginia came as a result of court orders and agreements between the plaintiffs and DJS.

What happened in West Virginia – a dramatic shift away from punitive solitary confinement in juvenile facilities – has been happening in a small but growing number of states across the country.

At least 10 jurisdictions have banned punitive solitary confinement, while others have placed less-restrictive limits on its use.

The trend comes at a time when critics are increasingly asserting that juvenile solitary confinement – sometimes for as long as 23 hours a day alone in a cell or room – is torture and can cause irreparable psychological and developmental harm to youngsters. (Read more about the issues with isolation in Gary Gately's earlier story Juvenile Solitary Confinement: Modern-Day 'Torture' in US)

Against that backdrop, states shifting away from isolation provide compelling evidence that solitary can, in fact, be banned or restricted without jeopardizing the security of facilities or endangering staff or juveniles housed in them.

In some other states, correctional administrators, other local juvenile justice authorities or correctional officers’ unions have opposed bans on punitive solitary confinement of juveniles, saying eliminating the practice could pose risks to staff, juveniles or the security of facilities. (Read more about extreme cases of solitary confinement HERE)

Until recently, Stephanie Bond, now the acting director of West Virginia’s Division of Juvenile Services, was among those who viewed solitary as a go-to tool to manage juveniles in correctional facilities.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and using segregation as a sanction has been what we had done for almost 20 years,” Bond told JJIE. “That was just the way that West Virginia had done things and to our knowledge, the way that other states were doing things, and as I found out in communicating with the other states, they’ve done the same things for years as well. So I think this is a new movement” away from solitary confinement of juveniles.

Bond, who has been in the acting director’s job since February 2013, said DJS conducted research on solitary and worked with the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, whose performance-based standards include ones for solitary confinement.

The agreements and orders stemming from the lawsuit forced DJS to undertake changes quickly, and the transition away from routine use of solitary has been an adjustment.

“Our staff kind of felt like we were taking their main tool away from them and so we’re trying to equip them with better ways to manage the situation – going to an overall more therapeutic approach with the kids, trauma-based care,” Bond said.

Juvenile justice experts generally distinguish between punitive solitary confinement and timeout-type isolation used when a youth is deemed out of control or a threat to himself or others. Experts say such timeout confinement should last minutes or hours, not days or weeks, and the youth should be carefully supervised by staff.

Jurisdictions that have banned punitive solitary in juvenile facilities include Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

Speaking of the growing number of jurisdictions abandoning punitive solitary, Laura Markle Downton, director of U.S. prisons policy and program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, told JJIE: “I think it’s accurate to say there is a groundswell, and there’s a groundswell around the country in which particularly people of conscience are asking very fundamental questions about what it means to have a justice system in which we subject individuals to conditions that lead to mental illness, that lead to suicide and … are given the label of rehabilitation.”

The Massachusetts Department of Youth Services banned punitive solitary confinement in 2009 after years of soul-searching and debate. The department began scrutinizing what it calls “room confinement” after two suicides in rooms in late 2003 and early 2004, both by hanging with bed sheets. (Neither of the victims was being held in solitary at the time of the suicides, and one of them was in a room with a sleeping roommate.)

But the suicides, combined with dozens of cases of kids harming themselves in juvenile facilities in the state, prompted DYS  to review its room confinement policy, Peter Forbes, the commissioner of the department, told JJIE.

The transition to the current policy in which youth are kept in their rooms for a short period to cool off — it averaged 40 minutes in the last quarter of 2013 — came only after a considerable resistance from unionized DYS staff and rank-and-file managers in juvenile facilities, Forbes said.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “it was just like, ‘Guys, you got to get on the bus here, or you’ve got to find something else.’ With the union, it was pretty turbulent. We had a lot of assaults [after banning punitive solitary]. There was an unsettled period of time that I correlate with this particular policy change.”

But a reduction in the number of youths confined to DYS facilities helped the department make the transition, and there have been significant decreases in juvenile assaults on DYS staff each of the past four years, Forbes said.

Like other experts, Forbes says to avoid overuse of room confinement, it’s essential to keep juveniles occupied with engaging programming that lives up to the juvenile justice system’s rehabilitative mission.

“The goal for us is if school’s in session, we want the kids in their seats,” Forbes said. “If groups are being run, we want kids in their seats. If the kids are going to gym, we want kids in the gym. We don’t want them back on the unit on restriction or whatever. … It’s a rehabilitative focus in the agency, and we really understand that this is a really important shot every time we get a kid.”

He says all Massachusetts DYS facilities also have mental health workers on staff — another element experts call critical to minimizing the use of solitary confinement.

Alaska allows confinement only when a youth poses a threat to himself, others or the safety of a facility.

“We really do endeavor to keep the kids out of their cells as much as possible,” Matt Davidson, program coordinator for the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice, told JJIE. “The major reason is we are trying to operate under restorative justice, and when kids are locked in their room, they’re not receiving the treatment that we’re trying to get them to receive.”

Alaska’s DJJ provides youth school five days a week and programs including ones focusing on aggression management, substance abuse and job training.

In Pennsylvania, youths cannot be confined more than four hours unless a medical professional examines the child and gives written order to continue the use of isolation.

Michael Pennington, director of the state’s Bureau of Juvenile Justice Services, told JJIE that type of confinement is used only as a “last resort” for safety and security and said it is used for as short a time as possible, with the youth observed every five minutes.

Staff at Pennsylvania juvenile facilities receive “de-escalation” training and annual refresher courses in de-escalation techniques.

“The bottom line for us is supervision is the key when you look at behavior management of kids,” Pennington said. “To isolate them when they’re having a difficult time behaviorally or mentally is a time of increased risk and self-harm, so isolating them without supervision for prolonged periods of time is certainly in my opinion not a good practice and not helpful for kids.

“We need to process these issues with kids and what’s going on, and obviously our kids come into the system with family issues, drug and alcohol issues, behavioral issues, mental health issues — you name it, it runs the gamut. So if kids are put in a position where they’re isolated without staff working with them or processing it, it increases the risk for kids of self-harm or other behaviors and it’s not going to turn out good.”

In Connecticut, confinement is used only for short periods when a youth needs to be removed from the general population temporarily.

Karl Alston, deputy director in charge of residential services in the Court Support Services Division of the Connecticut Judicial Branch, said staffers try to teach children how to manage stress effectively through anger-management, cognitive-behavior therapy and trauma-informed treatment, aimed at youths who have endured trauma.

“We don’t see our detention centers as prisons,” Alston told JJIE. “We’d rather see them as a school where we’ve become more therapeutic. We’ve brought in a lot of therapeutic programming. It’s just a different approach. We have to teach kids how to deal with their stresses, and once we do that and the kids understand it … then we start to see a difference in the behaviors and how to handle the behaviors.”

Alston knows many authorities at juvenile facilities elsewhere do not share that view.

“If you’re in the old culture, it’s easy to take a kid put them in a room and then there you have it, but what we encourage our staff to do is we encourage them to work with kids, we emphasize training on de-escalation, and we give them the tools to help them de-escalate,” Alston said. “And we have had resistance in the past with staff [but] once they get going and see the results and how it works and the instant change in a kid’s behavior, then they embrace it.”

Soon, many more juvenile detention facilities across the nation could begin moving away from punitive solitary confinement.

The Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation is drafting new standards for its more than 250 Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative sites in 39 states and the District of Columbia that call for an end to punitive solitary confinement of juveniles.

The new standards will certainly give impetus to the shift away from punitive solitary, given JDAI’s enormous influence as the nation’s most widely replicated juvenile justice reform effort.

But ending punitive solitary will pose huge challenges for juvenile facilities where it has long been the modus operandi.

“I think the most challenging thing is overcoming or changing the culture in the facility,” Mark Soler, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Children's Law and Policy, told JJIE. “Many, many facilities rely on long periods of room confinement for kids who break the rules. … There are certainly plenty of facilities that see room confinement as primary means of controlling misbehavior. So a kid breaks a rule, and they go to their room. They break a couple of rules, and they go to their rooms for a long time.”

Soler also acknowledged some unions’ opposition to bans on solitary — and said it is not surprising.

“They’re legitimately concerned about the safety of their members,” he said. “If one of our relatives were working in a facility like that, we wouldn’t want them to be at risk. We would want to make sure they were adequately trained and had other staff around and had good procedures in place.”

Soler lists a number of elements that need to be in place to safely make the shift away from punitive solitary confinement: training in verbal de-escalation techniques meant to defuse a situation; limiting solitary to short periods and situations that pose an immediate threat to a youth or others; ensuring adequate staffing levels, including mental health professionals; incorporating mental health staff when necessary in staff interventions; and relying on sound behavioral-management programs incorporating rewards, not just punishments many facilities rely on.

He said staff at juvenile facilities typically resort to the most restrictive responses to misbehavior such as solitary, restraints or pepper spray because they lack confidence to respond with less extreme approaches.

“This is about staff having confidence that they can handle the problems that come up when there are confrontations because unless they’re comfortable like that, they’re going to say, ‘We have to have these restrictive measures,’” Soler said.

Ned Loughran, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, based in Braintree, Mass., said juvenile facilities should collect, measure and analyze the use of solitary confinement.

“You can’t change what you don’t measure,” Loughran told JJIE. “So states that are being successful [in moving away from solitary] are the states that are measuring the use of isolation, then analyzing its use, developing facility-improvement plans to develop steps to reduce the use of isolation.”

To move away from solitary, Loughran said, it’s also critically important for staff at juvenile facilities to understand research in recent years on adolescent brain development that has found, among other things, juveniles’ brains are not fully developed and youths are more susceptible than adults to peer pressure, more impulsive, more likely to take risks, less likely to consider long-term consequences and more amenable to rehabilitation.

Paul DeMuro, a longtime juvenile justice expert who has served as a court-appointed monitor in child welfare and juvenile justice consent decrees in several states, said in a series of recommendations on ways to abolish punitive solitary for juveniles that all staff at a facility should have the same view of solitary.

He wrote that they must agree “the use of isolation causes more harm than good and, therefore, the use of and the duration of room confinement/isolation should be limited to the absolute minimum degree possible.”

In a paper published on an American Civil Liberties Union website in January, DeMuro also said not only youth, but also staff “can become institutionalized/conditioned to violent behavior… There is little doubt in my mind that much of the violence in secure juvenile institutions occurs because staff often depend on harsh and traditional institutional control methods (like the frequent use of isolation) that they have used over the years.”

DeMuro, who served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the West Virginia case, also pointed to the need for mental health treatment aimed at building on youths’ strengths instead of concentrating only on their weaknesses and said youths should be included in decisions about their lives.

He also stressed positive behavior management with concrete incentives for good behavior such as staying up later, more phone calls to home and more access to video games and TV.

Sanctions for major offenses such as assaulting staff, DeMuro wrote, should not last long, with the goal of getting the youth back into the program as soon as possible.

DeMuro told JJIE solitary makes youngsters “less trustful of the adults they deal with because any way you cut it, isolation is punitive and if you’re told by staff, ‘Well we’re really here to help you’ and you get thrown into isolation for 24 hours, 48 hours, it’s cognitive dissonance. How’s this program or this staff helping you?

“Isolation makes you more depressed, agitated, re-traumatized and more likely to self-harm yourself or commit suicide and finally, it makes you distrustful of the staff and their vowed intention to provide a caring environment for you.”

DISCLOSURE: Past and current financial supporters of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange may be quoted or mentioned in our stories. They may also be the subjects of our stories.

N.J. Solitary Confinement: Extreme Cases of Life ‘In the Box’

Inside the New Jersey Training School
Inside the New Jersey Training School

Nothing in attorney Sandra Simkins’ 15-year career could prepare her for the sight of Troy D.

“In all the time I’ve been doing this work, I have never seen anything like this,” Simkins told JJIE. “This kid did not have clothes. He was wrapped up in this weird yoga mat thing with Velcro straps. He had severe self-mutilation up and down his arms and all over his body. And he was even handcuffed within his cell, and I asked him what was going on, and he said he had been quote ‘in the box’ for about six months. And that was my first introduction into solitary.”

Simkins first encountered Troy when he was 16, in September 2009, as his counsel as part of a 3 ½-year grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to provide post-disposition representation for juveniles in New Jersey, where such representation had been non-existent.

lifeintheboxShe referred the cases of Troy, then held in the Juvenile Medium Security Facility (JMSF) in Bordentown, N.J., and another juvenile held in solitary confinement in the state, O’Neill S., to the non-profit, Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. The JLC, with pro bono co-counsel Dechert LLP (of Philadelphia), filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the two boys, which led to a $400,000 settlement last November.

O’Neill died at 19 in a Philadelphia shooting in January 2012.

Court documents and interviews with attorneys who represented Troy and O’Neill provide a harrowing look at extended solitary confinement of juveniles in New Jersey juvenile detention facilities.

The lawsuit and its settlement, along with a July petition by the New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations calling for a ban on punitive solitary confinement in New Jersey, have placed the state in the spotlight in a national debate over juvenile solitary confinement.

Critics say the practice amounts to torture and can cause irreparable psychological and developmental harm to youths, thousands of whom are held in solitary in juvenile facilities across the nation each year.

(See Related Story.)

Troy, according to the lawsuit, spent at least 178 days in solitary between February 2009 and October 2010, locked in a concrete cell measuring about 7 feet by 7 feet. O’Neill spent 55 days in solitary on 14 separate occasions between June 2009 and October 2010 in the JMSF and the New Jersey Training School in Monroe Township, N.J.

Each solitary cell had a concrete slab bed, a toilet and a sink, and meals were slid under the door. The youths were allowed out only to shower and had no access to education, physical recreation, peers or personal possessions.

Troy, who had a history of suicide attempts and mental illness, including auditory and visual hallucinations, was placed in solitary under “special-observation status” requiring close or constant watch, purportedly for his own safety.

O’Neill, then 16, was adjudicated delinquent in February 2009 for conspiracy to distribute controlled dangerous substances and placed in a residential drug rehabilitation center. After escaping from the rehab, he was placed in JMSF before being transferred to the New Jersey Training School.

For at least 50 of his days in the box, court papers allege, O’Neill was being held while on “prehearing room restriction,” when juveniles are put in solitary before a disciplinary hearing. He was sent to solitary for offenses as minor as writing on the wall of his cell with a pencil, Simkins said. Other times, she said, he was sent to solitary after being assaulted.

Before post-disposition representation of Troy and O’Neill, Simkins had worked as assistant chief of the Juvenile Unit of the Philadelphia Defender Association, where she supervised more than 20 juvenile attorneys. Pennsylvania does not allow solitary confinement of juveniles.

“Coming from Pennsylvania, they don’t do isolation, they don’t have solitary, and it was astonishing to me that this was permitted for juveniles,” said Simkins, now director of the Children’s Justice Clinic at Rutgers School of Law – Camden.

In New Jersey, Simkins said, solitary confinement of juveniles has long been concealed.

“I don’t think the judges know what goes on in these facilities. There is very little oversight. Lawyers don’t visit. So it’s a very hidden problem,” she said.

“And they don’t call it solitary. They call it all those other words like prehearing room restriction or segregation or close watch. They have all of these names that don’t sound like solitary. And so you have to really, really study the problem and spend time understanding a facility to get a handle on what’s going on.”

The lawsuit, filed June 7, 2010, named as defendants officials with the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission, which oversees the state juvenile justice system; staffers at state juvenile detention facilities; and a psychiatrist and psychologists from the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey (now part of Rutgers) who were responsible for evaluating and treating Troy.

In court papers, the plaintiffs’ attorneys said, “Defendants’ excessive confinement of Troy and O’Neill and the inhumane conditions of confinement imposed on them were arbitrary, improper, shock the conscience, offend notions of fairness, are offensive to human dignity, and constitute cruel and unusual punishment.”

The suit charged the defendants violated the plaintiffs’ 14th Amendment and New Jersey constitutional rights to due process as well New Jersey state law.

The front gate leading to the New Jersey Training School
The front gate leading to the New Jersey Training School" credit=" 

Troy — who was adjudicated delinquent for violation of probation, fourth-degree criminal sexual contact, third-degree aggravated assault, third-degree criminal restraint and two counts of fourth-degree aggravated assault — had repeatedly requested that he receive counseling and that he be removed from solitary confinement, court papers alleged.

Troy, plaintiffs alleged, did not even receive much of his twice-weekly, court-mandated sex-offense treatment, having had only six sex-offense sessions and nine other purported individual therapy sessions during his 178 days in solitary.

This, despite the fact that he had repeatedly mutilated himself with pieces of caulk or tile, banged his head against a wall, urinated in his cell and smeared feces on the walls.

“While there may be several acceptable ways to treat a juvenile who is suicidal, hallucinating, and self-mutilating, none of them include isolation for 178 days,” an amended complaint to the lawsuit stated.

Troy was subjected to especially harsh conditions, even for solitary confinement, the suit alleged.

He complained of extreme cold, and the mattress pad as well as sheets were often removed from the concrete slab bed. For at least 120 days, court documents said, Troy was ordered to remove his clothes and wear a “Ferguson gown,” a bulky, heavy, sleeveless smock. He allegedly told staffers on multiple occasions that showering while he was provided only with the smock subjected him to more cold. “He was routinely punished with extended isolation for refusing to take a shower,” court papers say.

In response to his cries for help, court documents say, juvenile facility staffers extended his isolation and restrained him or used force against him repeatedly, sometimes causing injuries.

“He was caught in a Catch-22 where if he asked for help he was told that he would remain in for a longer period of time,” Jessica Feierman, supervising attorney with the Juvenile Law Center, told JJIE. “Essentially, he had to prove he was better to get out of isolation.”

The lawsuit noted New Jersey’s Juvenile Code promises the state will “provide for the care, protection and wholesome mental and physical development of juveniles coming within the provisions of this act.”

With the lawsuit still pending, the New Jersey ACLU joined a broad coalition of advocacy groups in July in submitting the petition urging the Juvenile Justice Commission to end its use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for children.

In a July 15 letter to JJC Executive Director Kevin M. Brown, the petitioners stated: “There is an emerging body of social scientific literature that concludes that the negative effects of solitary confinement are devastating and that the effects are particularly acute for young people.”

The JJC rejected the petition in mid-February.

In response to a JJIE request for comment, Sharon Lauchaire, the public information officer for the JJC, emailed a statement last week.

"There are a number of reasons why the JJC restricts juveniles to their rooms, including discipline,” the statement said. “Residents also may be put on room restriction status for medical reasons, for their own protection, or for the protection of others.”

In 2005, the statement said, the JJC “undertook an extensive process to limit its use of room restriction to 5 days.”

“Implementation of this new rule received strong support from a broad range of advocacy groups, and remains in large measure the correctional standard across the nation,” the statement continued.

The New Jersey administrative code stipulates that a juvenile may not be subjected to more than five days in solitary for a disciplinary violation; may not be put in solitary more than 10 days in any 30-day period; and must be given two consecutive days outside solitary following any five-day period in solitary.

But the code includes a huge loophole that allows for unlimited solitary: “Nothing in this section shall prevent the placement of a juvenile in room restriction for the minimum time necessary to eliminate an immediate threat to the safety of either the juvenile, staff or other juveniles, or to the orderly operation of the facility.”

In response to a JJIE query about this loophole, the commission said in a statement Wednesday: “Juvenile Justice Commission regulations provide for a narrow exception to the room restriction limit of five consecutive days, although it is rarely invoked. Under the exception, a juvenile may be placed in room restriction for the minimum time required to eliminate an immediate threat to the safety of either the juvenile, other juveniles, staff, or the orderly operation of a facility. This limited exception is common in institutional settings, and is necessary to ensure the safety and security of the facility, its staff and residents. JJC's policy and practice continues to be that juveniles should be held in room restriction for a minimal period of time. The majority of room restriction uses involve significantly less than five days, and the rarely applied exception is always accompanied by strong internal management controls."

The JJC said it “regularly monitors, reviews and adjusts its policies and practices, including its room restriction policy, to ensure that the Commission is using the best methodology to promote the education, advancement and rehabilitation of the juveniles for which it is responsible.” And the commission said it would continue talks with the ACLU and “other interested parties” to “discuss strategies for achieving our goal of ensuring the safety and welfare of the JJC's residents.”

Soon after the petition was filed with the JJC, a union representing correctional officers in New Jersey, PBA Local 105, launched a campaign opposing a ban on solitary confinement of juveniles. The union did not respond to calls from JJIE seeking comment.

In an Aug. 26 news release, PBA Local 105 said: “Five days room restriction is reserved for extreme negative and violent behavior. The hearing officer seldom hands out the maximum room restriction penalty. By removing room restriction, other inmates and staff are subject to harm by these violent juveniles.”

The news release quoted the union’s president, Lance Lopez Sr., as saying: “Advocacy groups also should not mischaracterize these inmates as children, giving the public the misconception that these inmates are grade school children. ... Most have the stature and strength of grown men and women. Many already have children of their own, are associated with gangs and unfortunately lost all innocence long before beginning their time in the system.”

In response to Lopez’s comment, the Juvenile Law Center’s Feierman noted research on adolescent development that has been widely accepted in the U.S. legal system demonstrates young people have the capacity to change and mature.

“It does a disservice to the youth in JJC care, as well as to the staff, to ignore the opportunities for positive growth and development that are core to our juvenile justice system, and clearly recognized in the Juvenile Justice Commission mission statement,” Feierman said in an email.

On the union’s concerns about safety of staff and juveniles, she said all staff and youth in juvenile facilities should feel safe, and she pointed to research on solitary confinement that shows it tends to increase, not decrease, anger and rage.

“New Jersey should look to other states that have banned juvenile solitary confinement to identify alternative approaches that work,” Feierman said.

And Simkins said “the box” is hardly reserved for the most violent offenders.

Of about 200 children in JJC custody whom she represented as part of the post-disposition counsel project, she said, roughly 120 spent time in solitary confinement.

“In New Jersey,” Simkins said, “solitary is used as the first go-to response. The regulations in New Jersey allow the box to be used for just about anything.”

Juveniles have been put in solitary for using profanity, disobeying an order or not getting in the right line or moving fast enough, she said.

Speaking of the JJC’s rejection of the petition, Simkins said: “I think the rejection of the petition speaks for itself. Their mandate is supposed to be rehabilitating kids, and solitary clearly harms kids.”

And Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel with the ACLU's National Prison Project, said the case of Troy and O’Neill “is a red flag that there’s some serious solitary confinement problems in the juvenile justice system in New Jersey.”

“It’s very disheartening that with that terrible record, New Jersey has still chosen not to solve its problem and step forward to protect children.”

DISCLOSURE: Past and current financial supporters of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange may be quoted or mentioned in our stories. They may also be the subjects of our stories.

Juvenile Solitary Confinement: Modern-Day ‘Torture’ in the US


As a 17-year-old, Michael Kemp says, he felt like a caged animal.

For six months, his world was reduced to the size of a Washington, D.C., jail cell measuring maybe 8 feet by 10 feet.

During much of his time in solitary confinement, he spent 23 hours a day alone in the cell.

“You just like, ‘Man, I feel like an animal in here. I don’t even feel real … where I’m not even a human being,’" Kemp told JJIE. "You don’t feel like a human being."

Kemp, now 24, who was convicted of armed robbery and says he ended up in solitary because he was caught with a makeshift knife, slept on a mat atop a steel bed in the cinder block cell and had little contact with others except by yelling through a crisscross of bars to other inmates.

lifeinthebox“In there by yourself, you can go stir crazy because you ain’t got that interaction,” Kemp said. “You supposed to be growing as an individual, but you ain’t growing. You have no human connection with nobody else. You just in a room by yourself.”

Even now, seven years after his stint in solitary as a juvenile, Kemp says psychic scars remain, and he still tends to isolate himself in his home.

“I might go in the bathroom or be sitting in the living room and I be in there for hours, man, just looking in the mirror or just in a room, just like I don’t know why I won’t be active. I just find myself always isolating myself for some reason, man,” said Kemp, a boyish-looking, slim young man who wears his hair in long braids.

“It’s like if you put a grasshopper in a cup and then you place a top on it and it keeps on jumping and it keeps on jumping and it keep on hitting the top, keep on hitting the top, so when you take the top off, the grasshopper not going to jump out the top of the cup because it’s going to be so used to hitting the top of the cup, and it’s like that’s how it is. Sometimes it feels like I’m in jail when I’m not in jail.”

When you think of solitary confinement, perhaps you think of North Vietnamese POW camps like the one where John McCain spent more than five years in captivity or Alcatraz, where the “Birdman” Robert Stroud made solitary famous, or today’s Supermax prisons that house hardened adult criminals.

But in fact, thousands of juveniles also endure solitary confinement each year in the United States, often in tiny cells for 22 to 24 hours a day with little human contact, even though a growing number of experts say the practice causes irreparable psychological and developmental harm to youths.


  • In April 2012, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry issued a statement concluding that solitary confinement of juveniles could lead to depression, anxiety and even psychosis and called for an end to the practice. “Due to their developmental vulnerability, juvenile offenders are at particular risk of such adverse reactions,” the AACAP statement said. “Furthermore, the majority of suicides in juvenile correctional facilities occur when the individual is isolated or in solitary confinement.”

  • Juan Méndez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, has found that solitary confinement can amount to torture and has urged a ban on solitary confinement of children and people with mental disabilities.

  • The National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, commissioned by U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., concluded in its final report in December 2012, “Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.” The task force recommended the practice be forbidden. (The task force was co-chaired by Robert L. Listenbee Jr., who is now the administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Listenbee did not respond to requests for comment.)

  • In his role as OJJDP administrator, Listenbee stated in a July 5, 2013, letter to an American Civil Liberties Union official that “isolation of children is dangerous and inconsistent with best practices and that excessive isolation can constitute cruel and unusual punishment,” which is banned under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

  • Experts say adolescents are particularly vulnerable to psychological harm caused by solitary – sometimes known as room restriction, restricted engagement, segregation, isolation, lockdown or seclusion – because their brains are still developing.

Laura Markle Downton, director of the U.S. prisons policy and program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which represents 320 religious organizations, said the campaign opposes solitary confinement of juveniles and views it as a form of torture.

“It’s really a moral question first and foremost,” Downton told JJIE. “When you think about if a parent were to lock a child in a closet, let’s say, for an extended amount of time, we would call that child abuse. And yet that’s essentially what we’re doing within our justice system.

“What we know is that isolation does not lead to rehabilitation. It leads to destruction and annihilation, and we believe very firmly as people of faith that this is immoral and that it’s wrong.”

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]mentalhealth_graphic_v4-336x228Learn more about mental health care in the juvenile justice system at our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub[/module]

Critics note that solitary – which youths have been subjected to in U.S. juvenile facilities for more than a century – often denies children access to education, mental health treatment, physical activity, and reading and writing material.

Despite widespread concerns about juvenile isolation, however, some correctional officers’ unions and corrections administrators call the practice a necessary option to maintain discipline and ensure the safety and security of facilities.

A November ACLU report calling for a ban on solitary confinement in juvenile detention facilities cited four reasons generally given to justify it: to punish children when they break facility rules; to protect a child from other children; to deal with children deemed too disruptive or out of control; and to isolate a child for medical reasons, including having a contagious disease or having expressed a desire to commit suicide.

Speaking of solitary confinement, Craig Brown, chief lobbyist for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents correctional officers in the state system, said: “Our feeling was, why ever deprive yourself of a tool? … Corrections is about tradeoffs, and one of the tradeoffs is if you don’t use a tool like this, you disrupt the program for everybody else.”

If the system did not rely on solitary, Brown said: “If you have somebody who is messing things up so other wards who are trying to participate and deal with their issues can’t do it, then what you’ve done is you’ve said, ‘Well, we’re not going to isolate this ward. In exchange we’re going to let him mess up the program for 10 or 15 other guys.’”

Referring to solitary, Brown said, “It’s necessary for programming, it’s necessary for staff safety, it’s for the safety of the other wards – at times.”

California state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, a child psychologist, expresses a decidedly different view.

Yee has proposed a bill that would sharply restrict solitary confinement of youths in state and county juvenile correctional facilities.

Yee, who has treated youngsters in prisons, jails and health systems, told JJIE solitary makes youths more dangerous, more antisocial, more likely to reoffend, more likely to commit suicide and more likely to suffer a lifetime mental illness.

In solitary, Yee said: “Kids become depressed, they become disassociated, they begin to sometimes decompose psychologically. So there’s nothing good that comes out of solitary confinement for the youngster. It’s all bad, and it seems to me that if the [state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] would just simply pick up a book on psychology and read it, they would understand that this is not a good thing for youngsters and not good for our society in general…. Torture doesn’t help anybody at all.”

Under Yee’s bill, solitary confinement could be used only when a juvenile posed an “immediate and substantial risk of harm to others or to the security of the facility, and all other less-restrictive options have been exhausted.” The bill also specifies that a juvenile be held in solitary only for the minimum time necessary to reduce the risk.

Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, which oversees the Division of Juvenile Justice, said state law allows youths to be held up to 23 hours a day in a room in a “behavior treatment unit.” But Sessa said youths have been allowed to leave the rooms an average of six hours a day most of the past year and that youths held in the rooms receive education and counseling.

Of Yee’s measure, Sessa said, “This bill is a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Yee said the department opposed a bill that failed last year that would have restricted solitary confinement of youths in juvenile facilities.

“If [corrections officials] had their way, they’d probably still have torture chambers in the state of California,” Yee said.

New Jersey also has become a focal point in the debate over solitary confinement of juveniles.

The New Jersey ACLU and other organizations petitioned the state Juvenile Justice Commission, in July to ban punitive solitary confinement of youths in juvenile facilities.

In a letter to Kevin Brown, the executive director of the JJC, the petitioners stated, “Solitary confinement is an extreme and inhumane form of punishment that is not evidenced-based, wastes taxpayer money, and jeopardizes public safety; this is especially so when the people being subjected to the punishment are children.”

The JJC, the state agency that oversees juvenile justice in New Jersey, rejected the petition to ban punitive solitary confinement of youths in mid-February.

Sharon Lauchaire, the public information officer for the commission, part of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, said the JJC would continue discussions with the ACLU about what is known in the state as “room restriction.”

“We have reviewed our use of room restriction in the past and will continue to do so,” Lauchaire told JJIE. “We will be soliciting feedback from the ACLU and other parties on room restriction.”

The denial of the petition came after a $400,000 settlement in a lawsuit over two boys who had been held in solitary in New Jersey for extended periods – one of them, for about six months.

Policies on solitary confinement of juveniles vary widely across the country.

Even critics of juvenile solitary acknowledge youths who are out of control or a threat to themselves or others may need some time alone but say this should be for minutes or hours, not days – and with close adult supervision.

Some states – including Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Oklahoma and West Virginia – have banned or restricted punitive solitary confinement of juveniles. And New York State just banned solitary confinement of juveniles held in state adult facilities.

It’s impossible to say how often U.S. juvenile detention facilities use solitary confinement, as neither states nor the federal government publishes such data and almost no detention facilities make the data available to the public.

Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel with the ACLU's National Prison Project, estimated that about 70,000 young people are being held at any given time in juvenile facilities nationwide and that in many facilities solitary confinement is “routine.”

In an October letter, the ACLU and numerous other organizations urged Attorney General Holder and OJJDP’s Listenbee to prohibit solitary confinement of youths in federal custody. In addition, more than 40,000 people have signed a petition calling on Holder to ban solitary confinement of juveniles in federal custody.

And on Feb. 28, U.S. Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-California, proposed a measure that would ban solitary confinement of youth in federal juvenile facilities.

“Solitary confinement is something that is purely punitive, and it has nothing to do with rehabilitation,” Cárdenas told JJIE.

But despite concerns about the dangers of juvenile solitary expressed by the National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence and by Listenbee, the U.S. government still has not banned the practice in federal detention facilities.

“There’s no prohibition,” Fettig told JJIE. “It’s sort of like, ‘Put your money where your mouth is.’”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who chaired a Feb. 25 Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on solitary confinement, called on all state and federal facilities to end solitary confinement of juveniles, pregnant women and people with “serious and persistent” mental illness “except under the rarest circumstances.”  (Durbin’s office did not respond to requests to clarify what would constitute those “rarest circumstances.”)

“When it comes to solitary confinement, we know children are particularly vulnerable,” Durbin said. “The mental health effects of even short periods of isolation, including depression and risk of suicide, are heightened among youths.”

Supporters of a ban on solitary in juvenile facilities point out that many youths enter the facilities with mental illness and that solitary aggravates it.

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]hub_arrow-01For more information about mental health and how many youth are affected visit our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub[/module]

“When you subject [juveniles] to extreme isolation and then you expect their behavior to change, well, that’s living in a fantasy world because you’re actually exacerbating whatever pre-existing problem that kid had,” Fettig said. “Subjecting them to solitary confinement isn’t going to turn them into well-socialized adults. It’s going to inflict more harm on them. So it’s actually completely counterproductive to what the system should be doing, and child abuse should not be mandated by the state.

“You literally are locking a child down with nothing to do, with no interaction, for 23, 22, 24 hours a day. In some ways, it’s common sense to look at the denial of education, the denial of drug treatment, the denial of adequate mental health care that exists in solitary confinement, and think to yourself, ‘Well, what’s going be the result for that kid? How could anything positive ever come from such treatment?’ And the answer is, it doesn’t.”

Bart Lubow, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, said solitary flies in the face of the rehabilitative goal of the juvenile justice system.

“All the evidence about the effects of isolation are that it is counterproductive to the goals of rehabilitation,” Lubow said, “so I don’t know how you can be doing rehabilitation based on that kind of extreme punishment.”

Fettig points out that the U.S. Supreme Court has cited research on adolescent brain development in ruling against extreme punishment for juveniles, including the death penalty and mandatory sentences of life without parole. The high court has based these rulings in part on research showing  that juveniles’ brains are not fully developed, and youths are more susceptible than adults to peer pressure, more impulsive, more likely to take risks, less likely to consider long-term consequences and more amenable to rehabilitation.

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]For more information about community-based alternatives to formal juvenile justice processing visit our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub[/module]

The Supreme Court should also ban solitary confinement of juveniles as “extreme punishment,” Fettig suggested.

“That mission in juvenile justice, which is rehabilitation, becomes even more critical in light of the science as well as in light of the top law, the Supreme Court jurisprudence in this country, that has looked at the science and looked at the law and our Constitution,” she said.

“We believe that those theories, that same science and judicial ruling can easily be applied to the most extreme forms of punishment that we see in the juvenile justice system … and that is the use of solitary confinement.”

A ban on solitary is long overdue, in the view of Tanisha Denard.

As a 17-year-old, she spent 2 ½ weeks in solitary at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall outside Los Angeles.

Denard, now 19, told JJIE she ended up at Los Padrinos for a month because she failed to appear for court dates for truancy tickets she received for being late for school and was put in solitary after refusing to socialize or eat. (She graduated from high school in 2011 and now works as a youth organizer for the Youth Justice Coalition, which fights race, gender and class inequality in Los Angeles County’s and California’s juvenile justice systems.)

While in solitary, Denard came out of her cell only to use the bathroom and to shower and had little contact with others and no reading or writing materials.

If she weren’t in solitary, Denard said, she could have been doing homework or something productive that would have helped rehabilitate her instead of languishing in her cell.

Of solitary, Denard said: “It was dehumanizing. It felt like I wasn’t even a person in society. Nobody could see me. I couldn’t see nobody. So it feels like you not even there.”

Thus, like thousands of other children in the United States each year, Tanisha Denard became all but invisible – in the largely hidden world of juvenile solitary confinement.

ACLU Calls for Ban on Solitary Confinement in Juvenile Facilities

The American Civil Liberties Union has called for a ban on solitary confinement of children being held in juvenile facilities.
The American Civil Liberties Union has called for a ban on solitary confinement of children being held in juvenile facilities.

The American Civil Liberties Union has called for a ban on solitary confinement of children being held in juvenile facilities.

In a report titled “Alone and Afraid: Children Held in Solitary Confinement and Isolation in Juvenile Detention and Correctional Facilities,” the ACLU strongly condemned solitary confinement, in which children are held in a small cell 22 to 24 hours a day with little social contact.

“Solitary confinement can cause serious psychological, physical, and developmental harm, resulting in persistent mental health problems or, worse, suicide,” the report stated.

The ACLU, which had previously urged a ban on solitary confinement for youths being held in adult detention facilities, also sharply criticized isolation in juvenile facilities that lasts less than 22 hours.

“It is time to abolish the solitary confinement of children and strictly limit and uniformly regulate isolation practices,” the report said.

Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told that juveniles sometimes need to be isolated to protect themselves or others but that should last minutes or hours, not days.

“The risks are simply too great to subject children to 22-, 23-, 24-hour-a-day lockdown, and that’s the kind of practice that if parents did it, we would consider it child abuse, but the state does it every day to kids,” Fettig said.

She said about 70,000 young people are being held at any given time in juvenile facilities nationwide and that in many facilities solitary confinement is “routine.”

Fettig said solitary confinement deprives children of education and exercise they need to stay healthy and subjects them to conditions that can seriously impair their mental health.

She pointed out that Juan Mendez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, has called for a global ban on use of solitary confinement for children and a limit of 15 days for adults. Children have often been subjected to solitary confinement for more than 15 days, Fettig said.

The ACLU report cited a July 5, 2013, letter to an ACLU official from Robert Listenbee Jr., administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the U.S. Justice Department, in which he stated that “isolation of children is dangerous and inconsistent with best practices and that excessive isolation can constitute cruel and unusual punishment.”

The report also noted the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence recently concluded that “nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.”

And in an April 2012 statement, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry said: “The potential psychiatric consequences of prolonged solitary confinement are well recognized and include depression, anxiety and psychosis. Due to their developmental vulnerability, juvenile offenders are at particular risk of such adverse reactions. Furthermore, the majority of suicides in juvenile correctional facilities occur when the individual is isolated or in solitary confinement.”

It’s impossible to say how often juvenile detention facilities use solitary confinement or other forms of isolation, as neither states nor the federal government publishes such data and almost no detention facilities make the data available to the public.

Bart Lubow, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategies Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, told that he backed the ACLU’s call for a ban on solitary confinement of youths in juvenile facilities.

“It’s a form of torture because all of the evidence -- certainly from the psychologists, psychiatrists and the developmental experts, not to mention the people who have experienced it -- indicate that is has that kind of traumatic effect on people who are subject to it,” Lubow said.

“This is pretty much a no-brainer if people think of it from the perspective of what they would do with their own kids. We give kids time-outs, which is a very different reality. That’s not what we’re talking about here.”

If a child is so out of control that he needs to be isolated, an adult should be there with the child to restore him to calm, Lubow said.

Some of the best juvenile facilities, he said, work to create an environment in which the norms for the children and adults discourage the types of behavior that lead to kids being confined, or the facilities respond to behavior in ways that don’t require isolation and solitary confinement.

Dana Shoenberg, deputy director of the Washington-based Center for Children's Law and Policy, shared that view.

We think that there are ways of handling discipline and preventing the need for discipline other than having to lock kids in a room and leave them without stimulation,” Shoenberg told

“There are things that jurisdictions can do to prevent the need [for solitary confinement]. When they use positive incentives to encourage the right behavior, when they keep kids busy, when they give them the kind of mental health services that they need, these are the ways that jurisdictions can avoid the unnecessary use of solitary confinement.

“And that’s a message we really want to get to people, is that it takes creativity and it takes really engaging with kids, and it definitely takes having the professional services available that kids need to meet their mental health needs.”

The ACLU report noted some progress: Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, Oklahoma and West Virginia have banned or restricted solitary confinement of juveniles.

Legislation pending in California would ban solitary confinement in juvenile facilities unless a youth posed “an immediate and substantial risk of harm” to others and to the “security of the facility” and all less-restrictive options have been exhausted.

In New Hampshire, pending legislation would ban solitary confinement for inmates under 18.

And Texas has passed legislation requiring a comprehensive review of the use of solitary confinement.

The report said juvenile detention facilities generally justify solitary confinement and other forms of physical and social isolation for one of four reasons:

  • Disciplinary isolation is used to punish children when they break facility rules.
  • Protective isolation is designed to protect a child from other children.
  • Administrative isolation is used during initial processing at a facility when officials don’t know another way to manage a child or when they consider the child too disruptive or out of control.
  • Medical isolation is used to treat children for medical reasons, including having a contagious disease or having expressed a desire to commit suicide.

Suit Alleges Mistreatment of California Minors with Mental Health Problems

A cell where youths could be isolated at the now shuttered Preston Youth Correctional Facility, which California state officials shut down last year. A state bill failed this year that would have required every-four-hour mental-health evaluations of minors put into isolation in state, county or local jails in California.
A cell where youths could be isolated at the now shuttered Preston Youth Correctional Facility, which California state officials shut down last year. A state bill failed this year that would have required every-four-hour mental-health evaluations of minors put into isolation in state, county or local jails in California.

From the Center for Public Integrity

Minors with mental health problems and other disabilities are held in “unconscionable conditions” of 23-hour solitary confinement and deliberately cut off from education and other rehabilitation at a San Francisco Bay Area juvenile hall, alleges a lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court in Northern California.

The class-action suit against Contra Costa County probation and county school officials accuses them of locking young wards in small cells for days at a time in response to behavior stemming from the children’s own disabilities — including bipolar disorder — and then illegally depriving them of education as part of a three-tier system of isolation.

The two most severe tiers of isolation imposed on wards are called “risk” and “max,” requiring 23-hour confinement in cells, when “youth with disabilities are outright denied both general and special education entirely,” according to the suit.

The first tier, called “program,” results in up to 22 ½ hours of solitary confinement, during which, the suit says, the county’s policies illegally permit probation (officials) to withhold education as a punishment or for no reason at all.”

Among the suit’s allegations:

  • A 14-year-old girl identified as G.F. was put into solitary in a cell for approximately 100 days over the last year, with no education services and short breaks outside only two times a day. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention deficit, the girl was removed from the juvenile hall county school and put into solitary, with officials failing to conduct a mandatory inquiry into whether her behavior was related to her disability.
  • W.B. a 17-year-old boy — already found mentally incompetent by a juvenile court — was put into solitary for more than two months out of a four-month period. He began hearing voices, talking to himself, thought he was being poisoned and broke down into a psychotic episode and was hospitalized for three weeks before being returned to the hall.
  • Q.G., 17, has been in full-time special education since third grade and has diagnosed behavior problems. Before entering juvenile hall, he was on a special education plan with specific daily behavior intervention services. After becoming a ward, he was put into general education classes and his behavior plan eliminated and he was marked “absent” from classes when put into solitary 30 times. “While in solitary confinement, Q.G. is denied the opportunity to go to school and receives zero credits for the time he has missed,” the suit says.

The lawsuit was filed by a national pro bono law firm, Public Counsel, and Berkeley, Calif.-based Disability Rights Advocates and the San Paul Hastings private law firm in San Francisco. Lawyers filing the suit say they have corresponded with probation and other officials about conditions. They said county officials declined to meet with them, but contended in correspondence that there were security reasons for confining wards in cells. Officials did not address arguments, lawyers said, that they were legally bound to provide education services and proper assessment of special needs and behavior problems.

Contra Costa County Probation Officer Philip Kader was out of the office until next week, officials at his office said, and they declined to comment. Kader is named in the suit, along with the Contra Costa County Office of Education, which supervises education at the hall.

Peggy Mashburn, chief communications officers at the Contra Costa Office of Education — which is also named as a defendant — said that the office had no comment Thursday because it is still reviewing the lawsuit.

Public Counsel lawyer Laura Faer called the policies inside Contra Coast’s juvenile hall — located in the city of Martinez — “broken and draconian.” She said conditions resemble “maximum-security-like” prisons rather than what state and federal law dictate for conditions inside juvenile and treatment for children with disabilities.

“Contra Costa is failing in its actual legal mission to rehabilitate children,” Faer told reporters. Officials are in “100 percent violation” of laws requiring assessment of students and special-education services.

Wards “are routinely locked for days and weeks at a time in cells that have barely enough room for a bed and only a narrow window the size of a hand,” she said. “In these cells, they are unlawfully denied education and special education and contact with teachers and other students. They are denied textbooks and instructional materials.”

She said 14-year-old plaintiff G.F. has received additional punishment for peering outside her cell while in solitary.

Faer told the Center for Public Integrity that isolation, lasting days, not just hours, can stem from physical fights, but also from defiant comments or refusal to follow staff orders — all behavior that frequently stems directly from a ward’s mental health problems or disability. The law requires officials to assess whether poor behavior stems from a disability, and create a plan that specifically address that.

Mary-Lee Smith, attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, said “it is abhorrent” to confine students with disabilities. The system in Contra Costa, she said, is used “without regard to whether the behavior leading to solitary was related to disability. It does so without even inquiring into whether the child has a disability that may be worsened in solitary confinement.”

The county school at the Martinez juvenile hall enrolls about 1,300 students a year, the lawyers said. The hall’s own records show that at least one-third of the wards have disabilities requiring special education services.

The suit notes that California law declares that juvenile halls exist solely for rehabilitation, and “shall not be deemed to be, not treated as, a penal institution” but rather “a safe and supportive homelike environment.”

Instead, inside the Contra Costa hall, the suit alleges: “Young people with disabilities become trapped in a cruel cycle of discrimination” and “are locked away in solitary confinement where their conditions only deteriorate and they fall further behind in their education.”

Faer said juvenile detention officials are required to create “pro-active, positive rehabilitation plans” for wards, but records obtained and reviewed by lawyers indicate that hall and school officials are failing in that duty.

“These are kids. We have a chance here to help them,” Faer said. “But they are pretty much stealing children’s futures.”

Based on a review of the Martinez hall’s policies, the lawsuit says, wards put into solitary for 23 hours are “outright denied both general and special education entirely.”

The use of solitary confinement in California’s state and county juvenile detention centers has prompted repeated attempts by some legislators to impose regulations barring lengthy isolation beyond relatively short periods and frequent staff observation of youths in cells.

A bill along those lines currently pending in California’s state legislature is sponsored by state Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat. It passed the state Senate, and is now before Assembly members, who have adopted some amendments.

The Center of Public Integrity reported on how a previous unsuccessful attempt by Lee to pass a similar bill was met with stiff opposition from law enforcement officials and prison guards who contribute heavily to legislators’ political campaigns.


The Center for Public Integrity is a non-profit, independent investigative news outlet. For more stories on this topic go to